starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole
screenplay by Will Ferrell & Adam McKay
directed by Adam McKay
by Walter Chaw I feel about Will Ferrell the way I feel about Jack Black: that they're good second-fiddles on occasion, but put them in a lead role and my eyeballs roll into the back of my head. Imagine my surprise that Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (hereafter Talledega Nights) showcases Ferrell's Faulknerian idiot man-child to great advantage in a vehicle that's sharp, smart, topical, and funny. It's an exuberant satire in every sense of the abused term--a twisting of familiar elements into grotesquerie that brings to light the essential absurdity of the familiar, sketching a portrait of the divide between the blue states and the red states with a feather bludgeon. It's this year's Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, doing for anti-intellectual animals and effete eggheads what that film did for the racism leveled in popular culture at "favoured" minorities. This is the finest document yet of the special brand of idiocy that compels our noble Congress to rename French Fries and French toast in their commissary or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the air of noblesse oblige that taints the highbrow's mincing, faux-outraged response. Credit Talladega Nights for this: no one's necks have ever been redder than those sported by these self-described retards, and no brainy gay Frenchmen have ever been this gay and French.
Ricky Bobby (Ferrell), shot out of his mother's womb in the backseat of a car, grows up with just a couple of visits from his unrepentant daddy (Gary Cole), from whom he picks up the all-American mantra of "If you ain't first, you're last." With this as his only guiding principle, Ricky takes the wheel of a failing NASCAR team, marries an unbelievably hot pageant princess (Leslie Bibb) whom he screws over a family banquet of KFC and Taco Bell, and sires violent, ill-bred sons named Walker and Texas Ranger. Best friend Cal (John C. Reilly) attempts to bring Ricky out of a coma by telling of the time he posed for PLAYGIRL and "spread his ass and everything," and pit chief Luscious (Michael Clarke Duncan) tries to lever a knife out of Ricky's leg using another knife. Meanwhile, the bad guy, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), reads Camus while he's driving and has uncommented-upon dinner parties with Elvis Costello and Mos Def. His "gayness" causes Ricky to faint, but not before picking up the gauntlet and challenging his ideological nemesis to a showdown at the titular Talladega 500. That it all goes down to the tune of Pat Benatar's "We Belong" says it with that hint of a subversive idea that Ricky actually enjoys a character arc in Talladega Nights, starting in bestial nationalism, proud imbecility, and base homophobia, and ending in what looks like enlightenment. Forget Oliver Stone's aimless movie-of-the-week World Trade Center: this is the picture that offers hope for reconciliation amongst the hawks and doves post-9/11.
There's a moment early on in Talladega Nights where a ticket taker at a NASCAR event waxes philosophical; I was shocked to observe I was the only one who chuckled, which made me wonder if it was, in fact, intended as a joke. The lack of response didn't strike me as a failed gag, but as a sobering glimpse at my own bigotry towards race fans. I thought for certain they were hanging this guy out to dry for having emotional intelligence--that a nation populated, at least part, by brutal, ignorant, arrogant thugs would laugh in a certain way here and then later when the Geneva Convention is mocked (like our administration has mocked it) or, moreover, when Ricky declares Highlander the "Oscar winner for most awesomest movie ever." But then Cohen's Girard is introduced as a liberal so far to the left that his imposition of lifestyle and privilege become as dire as a fascist fist, clarifying that there's indeed a thin line between assholes who quote William Blake and assholes who quote Journey.
As Ricky burns in the crucible of his invisible fire, he invokes every spoke of the modern theological wheel ("Help me baby Jesus, help me Jewish God, help me Allah, help me Tom Cruise"), putting them on an equal plane on the one hand and actually having the wherewithal to talk about them on the other. The picture finds a way to equate other things, too (Don Shula, that Japanese kid who eats a lot of hot dogs, and Rue McClanahan, for instance), that don't often find themselves mentioned in the same breath--it's stream-of-consciousness and non sequitur as Zen koan, almost, buried in Talladega Nights amongst uses of the word "chubby" as a noun, Crystal Gayle concert T-shirts, a Member's Only jacket worn without irony, and enough references to erections to fill an architecture textbook. It's the high and the low, then, sure to offend the middle but putting its stake in (pitching its tent?) as the best, most canny illustration of the current culture war. It doesn't take a lot of squinting to recognize the personae of both "Bubba" and "Dubya" mashed into good-ol'-boy Ricky Bobby: stupid and smart; venal and noble; feckless and moral. Talladega Nights is a celebration of the dysfunction of being an American--of the possibility of being simultaneously proud and mortified of ourselves, of being "number one" and "last" at the same time, and, at the end of the day, of an ability, almost unique, to nearly live up to our best intentions. Originally published: August 4, 2006.